Imagine a supermarket in which customers never know the shop’s name and never see its logo - except perhaps in one place, hidden around the back of the building.
Of course, no such supermarket actually exists - retailers understand that they cannot solely rely on the brands occupying their shelves to stand out from the competition, that they need to be more than just the sum of their parts. As such, they invest in holiday campaigns, run charity partnerships, actively cultivate a brand and engage in reputation management.
And yet the FMCG companies who supply them with products often do not. From the morning breakfast cereal to the post-gym protein hit, via all our other daily meals, snacks and beverages, their products are a near-constant in modern life. Thanks in no small part to the substantial investments made in their marketing, many of these items play cherished, crucial roles in our daily lives.
But the companies behind them do not have anything like the same resonance. They are, essentially, like that hypothetical unbranded supermarket. They are failing to capitalise on the fact that their individual products are widely trusted - because individual consumers already have a strong relationship with them, of sorts, but they often don’t actually know the parent company behind the products on the shelves.
Laurence Stellings, Director of Reputation Institute, comments: "Conventional wisdom might suggest that corporate master brands need not aspire to broad recognition, that they can linger in the background being sensible, slightly dull, middle-of-the-road b2b brands. But smart companies realise that conventional wisdom is frankly wrong on this point."
Two such examples are P&G and Unilever, who have understood for years that their corporate identity and reputation needs attention in the same way their individual products do. This has taken the form of P&G’s first global campaign for its corporate brand, entitled ‘Thank you mum’, being tied into its ongoing sponsorship of the Olympic Games, and Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, which recognises rising consumer desire for corporations to take action on global issues. This sustainable focus has paid off for Unilever - last year it announced that its Sustainable Living Brands had grown 50% faster than the rest of its portfolio, a figure that had jumped up to 69% by 2019. This coincided with its UK reputation has improved by 3.5 points in Reputation Institute’s figures this year, off the back of a more active approach to corporate reputation management than many of its peers.
There can be several benefits to giving parent companies prominence alongside their individual products.
The affection held by consumer products can be transferred, by dint of association, to the parent company. Reputation Institute data shows that the prime driver of a company’s reputation is the quality of the goods and services it provides - but it can’t drive a company’s reputation unless people can see who that company is.
That improved corporate reputation can have several benefits - jobseekers might be more likely to apply to your company, or regulators could feel more confident when assessing your products. Stockists and corporate buyers might look more favourably on you. In a time of crisis, such as a contamination scandal or a product recall, journalists may not depict you in negative light and the public is more likely to stand by your side.
"It’s often said that brand is built from inside, and reputation is built from the outside," comments Stellings. "In practice, this means that no matter how carefully they cultivate their brand, companies are not fully in control of their reputation. Given the sheer volume of food and drink products and the frequency with which we come into contact with them, FMCG brands have a real opportunity to shape their reputations. However, not all are grasping it."
It also goes in the other direction - a food or drink company held in high esteem by a consumer will see that positive reputation transferred into newly-launched products, or products that are new to the individual consumer. Simply put, people who already enjoy a company’s existing products are likely to look favourably on their new products - but if they don’t know that it’s from the same company, you’ve just lost an opportunity for their custom.
Comments Stellings: "When you’re on Facebook, or LinkedIn, or even if you’re at a party or networking event in the flesh, you’ll get introduced to new people by mutual friends. With so many food and drink products out there, it makes sense for companies to try to establish connections with consumers in the same way - but you can’t do that if they don’t know who you are, or have never heard anything about you."